Deconstructing Anti-Nationalism in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
Rev. ed., New York: Verso, 2006
After the Second World War, a large portion of the academic class went into overdrive dissecting and pathologizing the ideas and forces, both actual and concocted, which served as the foundations for nationalism. In the ensuing decades-long quest to delegitimize nationalism, mediocre thinkers have been pushed into positions of prominence due to little more than their ability to say the correct (i.e. anti-nationalist) things in seemingly intelligent ways. Banal, even childish and stupid ideas, when worded professionally or cloaked in jargon have received praise, and the advocates of such ideas have been propagated as serious and important thinkers.
Perhaps none has managed to remain as continuously lauded or as likely to end up on university syllabi in recent decades as Benedict Anderson. His highly influential book, Imagined Communities, will have been encountered by anyone who has studied history formally in the past twenty years or so. And, for nationalists, it does not take long to figure out why. The clue is in the title itself: national communities are imagined, formed at the intersection of language, technology, and economics with no basis in primordial identity or legitimate group affiliation; nationalism itself then is an ideology without actual substance, a set of myths which arise — or are designed — to replace dead gods and kings. Nationalists, to Benedict Anderson, are simply extraordinarily committed devotees of particular works of fiction. Behind his arguments is the notion that they are ultimately either dupes of various elites or victims of material forces beyond their control with no understanding of either real history or themselves.
The relationship between nationalism and the academy is fairly simple: nationalist movements which can be characterized as Left-wing or classical liberal tend to be treated relatively sympathetically while those which can be characterized as Right-wing are almost without exception treated harshly; it is important, however, to make clear that all nationalisms are generally regarded as problematic. Though there can be no doubt that racial nationalism is the greatest political sin among academics and that at the core of anti-nationalism (certainly in the post-war era) is Jewish fear of white self-determination, these sentiments have morphed into critiques of nationalist movements across the globe and among diverse peoples: no group that desires any kind of organic homogeneity within a clearly defined territory is safe from anti-nationalists. It is tempting, especially when one is first introduced to works such as Imagined Communities, to assume that when these types of arguments seem to be weak or certain ideas seem bizarre that it is your fault, that you are failing to grasp some deeper meaning, that you must be missing some crucial bit of knowledge which would illuminate the author’s points. Sometimes, of course, this is the case. But often the work itself is simply garbage and is either being pushed by those with a political or cultural agenda or by mediocre minds who never bothered to question it themselves. Let us now investigate Imagined Communities, being sure to take the author at his word, to not “retcon” his arguments or redefine words such as “imagined” so that his work appears more sophisticated than it is in actuality.
In his introduction, Benedict Anderson defines a nation as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (p. 6). He then explains his definition by listing four central points:
- “[The nation] is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (p. 6).
- “The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind” (p. 7).
- “[The nation] is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” (p. 7).
- “Finally, [the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (p. 7).
It becomes obvious as the book progresses that the author began his project with point four and worked backwards. The biases on display in his fourth point are indicative of the general tone of the book: a sort of naive bewilderment at human behavior which is always churning beneath the surface of his analysis. His observations concerning human attachments and bonds are ultimately simplistic but, being a professional historian, he is able to embellish his facile analyses with facts and descriptions which veil this fact. He is aided in this effort by fashionably “de-centering” the Anglosphere from his analysis: it is harder for British and American readers (whom he admits are his intended audience) to counter his arguments when his chosen case studies tend to be places such as Indonesia (his particular field of expertise), the Philippines, Thailand, and other relatively “exotic” locales with which they are unlikely to be familiar. But, though there is still a good amount of European and American history (this review will prioritize these examples), it is not the facts that he gets wrong anyway — it is his conclusions.
He begins his analysis in the second chapter, entitled “Cultural Roots.” Here his thought is as deep as it gets. He argues that nationalism could not have been conceived as a worldview without three fundamental changes in man’s conception of his relation to the world: first, the loss of the idea that “a particular script-language offered privileged access to ontological truth” (p. 36)”; second, the loss of the idea “that society was naturally organized around and under high centres — monarchs who were persons apart from other human beings and who ruled by some form of cosmological (divine) dispensation” (p. 36); and third, the loss of “a conception of temporality in which cosmology and history were indistinguishable, the origins of the world and of men essentially identical” (p. 36).
The chapter begins with a very significant observation which serves to highlight the questions of the book. It is worth quoting in its entirety:
No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers. The public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments precisely because they are either deliberately empty or no one knows who lies inside them, has no true precedents in earlier times. To feel the force of this modernity one has only to imagine the general reaction to the busy-body who ‘discovered’ the Unknown Soldier’s name or insisted on filling the cenotaph with some real bones. Sacrilege of a strange, contemporary kind! (This is why so many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentinians . . . ?) (pp. 9-10).
He then writes: “The cultural significance of such monuments becomes even clearer if one tries to imagine, say, a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals. Is a sense of absurdity avoidable? The reason is that neither Marxism nor Liberalism is much concerned with death or immortality” (p. 10). One might quibble with his reasoning and suggest that a Tomb of the Unknown Oncologist or a cenotaph for fallen New Age Self-Help Gurus are equally absurd but one gets his point. It is, however, simply insufficiently explanatory.
For Dr. Anderson, the diminution of religious belief around the time of the Enlightenment altered man’s understanding of death and immortality. He writes:
With the ebbing of religious belief, the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. (p. 11)
The idea of the nation fit like a puzzle piece into this newly secularized culture. One reason the author gives for this secularization is the vast amount of knowledge discovered by Europeans through exploration and contact with non-Europeans. This de-centered Europe in a cosmological sense; it became impossible to not conceive of multiple sacred communities, multiple forms of the sacred, simply through exposure, no matter how one judged these new communities. The other reason he gives is the decline in importance of sacred languages, e.g. “Church Latin, Qur’anic Arabic, Examination Chinese” (p. 14), and the rise of vernacular language made possible through print-capitalism. As Latin, the sacred language of Europe, declined, so too did the sacred community that used it, resulting in fragmentation, pluralization, and territorialization (p. 19). Though he acknowledges that there are many other reasons for this secularization, he deems these two the most relevant due to their connections to his later analyses.
The transition away from “the automatic legitimacy of sacral monarchy” (p. 21) was also crucial in setting the stage for the arrival of nationalism. Here he makes a common mistake that many White Nationalists will know from their studies of race: he succumbs to the continuum fallacy (as he does often). Dr. Anderson writes:
In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. (p. 19)
His argument is similar to those used by race-deniers. Because older states were not as clearly defined as modern states, modern states are somehow artificial. He goes even one step further and argues that because the rulers of these older states were often of different ethnicities than those they ruled (sometimes not even speaking the same language) and that dynastic marriages, conquests, and court intrigue could instantly bring together diverse new populations into the state, these states were ultimately purely political and lacked any deeper identity. It is little more than a childish “gotcha” point with no relevance to anything substantial, and, notably, he spends only a few pages on it. It is obvious that one can separate the ruler from the ruled and race and ethnicity from artificial political boundaries, but to do so would not only call into question his thesis about imagined communities but would also raise uncomfortable questions about majority and minority population genetics and so he quickly moves on. It is important to note that as the power of monarchs faded what replaced them, what was supported by those who had been ruled by them, was, in fact, a more ethnically and culturally-cohesive state. Given the choice, their subjects wanted not porous borders and diverse populations but smaller, controlled, orderly territories filled with people like them.
The final point of the chapter deals with the rise of a new conception of time. The author observes that the medieval Christian mind “had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separations between past and present” (p. 23). The eternal was intermingled with the mundane in both art and daily life, as, for example in the character of the parish priest who was both a representative of the divine as well as a member of the local community (pp. 22-23). Additionally, there was a sense of an imminent return of Christ and a corresponding lack of concern for the future of humanity in any way that we would understand it today; the author references what the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin called “Messianic time”: “a simultaneity of past and future in an instantaneous present” (p. 24). This changed with secularization and with advances in technology. The author writes:
What has come to take the place of the mediaeval conception of simultaneity-across-time is, to borrow again from Benjamin, an idea of ‘homogeneous, empty time,’ in which simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfillment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar” (p. 24).
The author uses two important cultural developments made possible (or at least greatly facilitated) by technology to illustrate this phenomenon: the novel and the newspaper.
The novel and the newspaper both arrange events along “homogeneous, empty time.” The characters/actors are “embedded in societies” (p. 25), they are “embedded in the minds of omniscient readers” (p. 26), and the actions are performed “at the same clocked, calendrical time . . . by actors who may be largely unaware of one another” (p. 26). The idea that the reader will identity with these individuals as part of a greater community without having met them is central to the author’s thesis. He writes: “An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity” (p. 26). This is, of course, technically true. But whereas, for Dr. Anderson, this suggests that the connection felt is a consequence of the medium — the novel and/or the newspaper creating a community where, in fact, there is none — the opposite is true.
Surely, if a novelist such as “the Father of Filipino Nationalism,” José Rizal (one of his examples), was able to touch so many readers it was because he could put his finger on something already present in their lives, he could identify and translate unique characteristics of Filipino culture and ethnicity into, first, emotion and then action. Does the author actually think that Rizal could have been equally effective as either a novelist or a political figure if he had lived in Burma or Algeria? Of course not.
His analysis of newspapers is both similar and similarly ridiculous: his observations are correct but his conclusions are foolish. Contrary to what Dr. Anderson believes, the power of the novel and the newspaper clearly indicate that there are present everywhere webs of identity and profound connections between people who have never met and that these are pre-existing, strong, and able to be accessed rather easily.
Chapter three is entitled “The Origins of National Consciousness.” In it the author goes into more detail on the centrality of print-capitalism to his thesis. With the rise of publishing the Latin book market (which was always rather small) became saturated and so publishers sought to expand into vernacular languages — what Dr. Anderson calls the “revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism” (p. 39). Print-capitalism and its “vernacularizing thrust” thus helped demote Latin and encourage the rise of regionally-specific language texts. But also, due to the diversity within particular language groups (which would have overwhelmed the print-capitalist system if it had tried to accommodate each of them), standard print-languages were developed thereby creating “unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars” (p. 44). Speakers of various dialects who might not be able to understand each other in person “became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper” (p. 44). This both expanded the scope of membership in one’s own language group but it also created a clearly demarcated line of restriction: those who could not read or speak one’s language did not belong. This is mostly true: it certainly expanded the scope of language-group membership; and certainly those who could not speak one’s language could not be a part of one’s language-group but this had, quite obviously, always been the case. No Spanish-speaker was denied membership in the brotherhood of English speakers simply due to the rise of print-capitalism. For the author, the readers in these expanded language-groups “formed [italics mine] . . . the embryo of the nationally imagined community” (p. 44). As with the novel and newspaper, he is arguing that this change in communication acted on the readers to form something new rather than revealing what was already there.
He makes two final points in this chapter: “print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which in the long run helped to build that image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of the nation” (p. 44). He also notes that “print-capitalism created languages-of-power” in that “[c]ertain dialects inevitably were ‘closer’ to each print-language and dominated their final forms” (p. 45). The first point is correct but could be phrased more accurately and less cynically: “Print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which in the long run helped people access their own histories in ways never before possible.” The second point is important to keep in mind when studying how language is used to subdue populations and alter political consciousness. He mentions, for example, the anti-Islamic and anti-Persian compulsory romanization by the Soviets and the active discouragement by the Thai government of the provision of hill-tribe minorities of publications in their own languages by foreign missionaries (pp. 45-46). The state will always try to suppress dissent and the manipulation of identity through language is not a new development.
In chapter four, “Creole Pioneers,” the author delves into the Americas, which are of particular interest to him for two reasons: they “shared a common language and common descent with those against whom they fought” (p. 47); and nationalism in the Americas was not, as most elsewhere, rooted in populism. Here Dr. Anderson goes spectacularly wrong. The revolutions in Central and South America were led largely by propertied men, as well as merchants and professionals. He observes that a strong element in their desire for independence from Spain was not the desire for integration of the lower classes into the body politic but rather fear of the lower classes — and by lower classes he is referring to blacks and mestizos (p. 48). He is quick to point out that Simon Bolívar once stated that the threat of a Negro revolt was far greater than that of a Spanish invasion (p. 49). And of course, the obligatory reference to slave-owning American Founding Fathers is made. One wonders if, when writing this, he honestly thought that blacks and Indians were considered simply to be lower classes rather than an entirely utilitarian population, incapable of full political and social integration. To call into question the populist intentions of any of these revolutions is fair, but to reject the notion based on a lack of desire among the revolutionaries to integrate non-whites into the post-revolutionary state is to misunderstand historical race relations. Once again, he has the facts correct but his conclusions are flimsy at best: by rejecting black or Indian membership into the greater political community it does not in and of itself reflect an elitist bent to these revolutions but rather a robust sense of racial identity among whites in the Americas. The revolutionaries simply knew who their people actually were and, we can say with utmost certainty, dealt with nearly the same racial problems then as those that plague those regions to this day, further cementing the necessity of some sort of race-based political cohesion in the multiracial New World. It would have to be shown that the revolutionary leadership had no intention of incorporating lower class whites into any post-colonial political community for it to be declared free of populist motives.
Dr. Anderson next raises a very important question regarding New World nationalisms: how was it that what were basically “administrative units” of their respective metropoles “[came] to be conceived as fatherlands” complete with propertied classes willing to die for their nationalist aspirations? He suggests that it was a combination of class and technology. In the Spanish Americas, for example, whites who were born in the colonies but otherwise indistinct from Spaniards were essentially in permanent subordinate positions to those born in Spain. He notes that “of the 170 viceroys in Spanish America prior to 1813, only 4 were creoles” (p. 56). The New World whites grew increasingly attached to their lands (each succeeding generation logically being one step further removed from Spain) and, combined with the decreasing possibility of feeling fully Spanish by virtue of their treatment by Spain and their geographical position, what one might call a “rift in allegiance” developed in individuals (his specific example being creole bureaucrats and administrators whose careers were permanently horizontal in nature due to accident of birth) which was then shared. A bond was thus created. He also notes that miscegenation created new classes of people as well, although considering the complicated internal sociopolitical dynamics of race (as well as basic biological racial drives) it is highly debatable how much this would actually have affected pure-blooded Spanish-Americans’ “emotional” relationship to Spain.
Print-capitalism is, as usual, for the author, also a crucial factor in the development of these specific nationalisms. He makes many of the same observations as those mentioned earlier but adds a new twist: the juxtaposition in newspapers of daily life with the market. He writes:
Early gazettes contained — aside from news about the metropole — commercial news (when ships would arrive and depart, what prices were current for what commodities in what ports), as well as colonial political appointments, marriages of the wealthy, and so forth. In other words what brought together, on the same page, this marriage with that ship, this price with that bishop, was the very structure of the colonial administration and market-structure itself. In this way, the newspaper of Caracas quite naturally, and even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops and prices belonged (p. 62).
This is indeed what newspapers did (and do — to the extent that they are still read). However, arguing that a newspaper creates a community of ships and brides is akin to arguing that a new pair of eyeglasses creates a world of sharp images. It does nothing of the sort. Both merely reveal what is already there. What one does with the new information — whether visual or social or economic — is based on many factors, most of which are rooted in natural, biological reactions. He ends the chapter by emphasizing that economics, liberalism, or Enlightenment tenets did not have the power to create nationalist sentiments but that the second-class “creole functionaries” and “provincial creole printmen” did (p. 65). Each of those things could have (and did) affect nationalist sentiments but none — including functionaries and printmen — could create a national community. Each could only act upon a pre-existing bond: if those ships are our ships, then we were someone before we saw them.
The fifth chapter is entitled “Old Languages, New Models.” In it the author argues that in the European nationalisms in the period between 1820 and 1920, “‘national print-languages were of central ideological and political importance” and that “all were able to work from visible models provided by their distant, and after the convulsions of the French Revolution, not so distant, predecessors” (p. 67). Thus the nation became something that could be “aspired to from early on, rather than a slowly sharpening frame of vision” (p. 67). Based on the above criticisms of the author’s earlier arguments, the objections that will be raised should already be obvious. The age of exploration had de-centered Europe: the sacred languages now shared space with vernacular languages and now belonged not to God but to their respective speakers and readers (pp. 70-71). As vernacular language printing gained prominence, histories and dictionaries relating to particular languages and the peoples who spoke them appeared. Naturally, national consciousnesses began to appear in print. For the author, these consciousnesses were, of course “imagined.” Readers in this still semi-literate world tended everywhere to be elites and the bourgeoisie, further entrenching and empowering vernacular languages and ultimately transforming them into “languages-of-state” (pp. 76-78). He uses the French Revolution to illustrate the significance of this transformation to burgeoning nationalisms:
Like a vast shapeless rock worn to rounded boulder by countless drops of water, the experience [of the French Revolution] was shaped by millions of printed words into a ‘concept’ on the printed page, and, in due course, into a model. Why ‘it’ broke out, what ‘it’ aimed for, why ‘it’ succeeded or failed, became subjects for endless polemics on the part of friends and foes: but of its ‘it-ness’, as it were, no one ever after had much doubt” (pp. 80-81).
The implication here is that print-capitalism played a decisive historical role in the French Revolution. It would be factually incorrect to argue that it played no part, but surely a professional historian such as the author can think of examples of events from history prior to the advent of print-capitalism of which their “it-ness” cannot be doubted. This objection may seem trivial but, in fact, speaks to something mentioned in the first paragraph of this review: banal and childish — obvious — points cloaked in seemingly intelligent language and finalized with a shaky or false conclusion. Writings concerning the events of the French Revolution allowed for a broader understanding among a large group of people who then saw in these events a model of revolutionary nationalism. This is true. That without print-capitalism this would not have happened, therefore nationalists who were influenced by the French Revolution — the author uses the term “pirating” (p. 81) — were inauthentic, were merely absorbing the effects of print-capitalism and transposing their “imaginings” onto their own people is debatable but possible. What matters more, however, is the implication that “it-ness” is manufactured, that “it-ness” is based on nothing foundational, that effects create cause. The author is seeking to delegitimize nationalism through guilt-by-association and guilt-by-technology (“You only think that because the French think that”; “You just read that on the internet.”)
In chapter six, “Official Nationalism and Imperialism,” the author discusses the rise of official nationalisms — “an anticipatory strategy adopted by dominant groups which are threatened with marginalization or exclusion from an emerging nationally-imagined community” (p. 101) — as policy responses to the growth of populist language-based nationalisms “from below.” He begins by noting that the ruling dynasties of many states were not of the same ethnicity as those they ruled. As the national consciousness of the masses heightened, these figures had to become one with “their” people. This posed an interesting problem:
On the one hand, these new identifications shored up legitimacies which, in an age of capitalism, scepticism [sic], and science, could less and less safely rest on putative sacrality and sheer antiquity. On the other hand, they posed new dangers. If Kaiser Wilhelm II cast himself as ‘No. 1 German,’ he implicitly conceded that he was one among many of the same kind as himself, that he had a representative function, and therefore could, in principle, be a traitor to his fellow-Germans (something inconceivable in the dynasty’s heyday. Traitor to whom or to what?) (p. 85).
But one must ask whether either of these would-be problems for rulers of communities that are merely imagined? Clearly, a consciousness among the ruled already existed which had only been suppressed by the idea of monarchical sacrality. With its dissolution, the rapid flourishing of nationalist sentiment — enough to force kings and emperors to acquiesce to its power — indicates its pre-existing muscularity. Rather than serve as evidence of the “imagined” nature of nationalism, this demonstrates its firm, established roots in the hearts and minds of the masses — and also as a potential antidote to stale, withering sociopolitical models, especially those ruled by crypto-nationals. As the “other” is more clearly defined, so too are the interests of one’s own people. We see this even within these official nationalisms.
Dr. Anderson writes of the conditions under the official nationalisms and the imperialism that often accompanied them. He notes that in Russia, even the non-Slavic peoples had relatively few barriers to power due to “historical, political, religious, and economic ties” with Slavic peoples. He then contrasts the British Empire — “a grab-bag of primarily tropical possessions scattered over every continent” (p. 92) — describing its “profoundly racist character” (p. 93). Non-white natives, no matter how Anglicized they were, were not able to attain the same level of power or “in-group-ness” as whites. This is a surprise to no one, including the author. But he goes on to describe how even whites in these far-off imperial holdings were never able to fully integrate into the core of the empire. This is not a bug but rather a feature: a healthy distrust of rootlessness and a prioritization of one’s own (the closest of one’s own). All else being equal, brothers will always be prioritized over cousins. However, such models are rarely sustainable in the long term because they disperse talent, ultimately weaken the core (the metropole), and anger the subjugated. The rise of various nationalisms within these imperial territories was a natural result of the heightened sense of the “other.” Indians, for example, were keenly aware that they were not British, and this feeling increased with every passing year. There are, of course, many other examples of this, both outside and inside Europe. These empires were built on quicksand: ideas rather than blood, fantasy rather than reality. It is empires and official nationalisms that were imagined. He correctly points out that “[i]n almost every case, official nationalism concealed a discrepancy between nation and dynastic realm” and that “[i]mperialist ideology in the post-1850 era had the character of a conjuring trick” (pp. 110-11). Both the “discrepancy” and the “trick” demonstrate only the authenticity and legitimacy of primordial national sentiment, the type that cannot be forced or faked.
Chapter seven is entitled “The Last Wave.” In what amounts to a terribly condescending account of non-white nationalisms, he argues that colonial states, by educating natives yet denying them access to power, caused the intelligent ones to become bored, lonely, and filled with nationalist fantasies (p. 140). Like American creoles, whose journeys through their respective colonial administrative units were vertically-limited by their American “otherness,” so too were the journeys of non-whites in imperial administrative units. These class and race-based restrictions, combined with advances in education “to provide cadres for governmental and corporate hierarchies, but also because of the growing acceptance of the moral importance of modern knowledge even for colonial populations” (p. 116), created a restless intelligentsia with access to European models of nationalism. One must ask, however, if print-capitalism (specifically texts concerning European nationalisms) creates national consciousness, how it is that regional, ethnic, and racial differences in ideology and implementation arise? Hindu Nationalism does not look like Italian nationalism, which, in turn, does not look like Filipino nationalism. If people are so malleable, so enslaved to the written word, indeed so heavily reliant on European models, how does one explain Mohandas Gandhi or V. D. Savarkar in India? Or Aung San in Burma or José Rizal in the Phillipines? There is an intrinsic difference between these men that cannot be explained away by external material influence. Nor is it either historically correct or “fair” in a professional sense to suggest that the ideas and actions of non-white nationalists were fundamentally the result of “positive” European influence (ideas and technology). Their experiences as subjugated people exacerbated their awareness of European “otherness” and sharpened their own racial and cultural interests — as it true for all conquered peoples. The author’s final point in this chapter is that eventually print-capitalism had so embedded the idea of the nation in the global consciousness that the concept no longer required language to sustain itself. New information-dissemination technologies became widely available and the nation, beginning in the 20th century, was simply taken as a given.
In chapter eight, “Patriotism and Racism,” Dr. Anderson’s book takes an interesting turn. He writes:
In an age when it so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities for racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism — poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts — show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles. On the other hand, how truly rare it is to find analogous products expressing fear and loathing. Even in the case of colonized peoples, who have every reason to feel hatred for their imperialist rulers, it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of nationalist feeling (p. 142).
This is indeed high-minded of him. However, what is most astonishing is that such a paragraph should have to be written. That we live in an age in which any people desiring to live in accordance with their own values should require such a defense, especially one aimed at those who claim to be “cosmopolitan and intellectual,” shows how twisted the contemporary world has become. From here he returns to one of the central points from his introduction: the notion of the nation as an idea for which people are willing to kill and die.
The author observes that the love that exists within nationalism tends to revolve around two ideas: kinship and home (p. 143). The significance is that both “denote something to which one is naturally tied” (p. 143). Because one cannot choose one’s nationality it is surrounded by what he calls a “halo of disinterestedness” (p. 143). He writes that while “historians, diplomats, politicians, social scientists are quite at ease with the idea of ‘national interest,’ for most ordinary people of whatever class the whole point of the nation is that it is interestless. Just for that reason, it can ask for sacrifices” (p. 144). Consider for a moment war propaganda. Wars that are not framed explicitly as waged for self-defense rarely have popular support. People are not willing to die for oil, boardroom geopolitical strategy, and other intangibles, but when framed as necessary for the survival of their fellow citizens, brothers, or the defense of their wives and children they rarely hesitate. Dr. Anderson writes:
Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International can not [sic] rival, for these are all bodies one can join and or leave at easy will. Dying for the revolution also draws its grandeur from the degree to which it is felt to be something fundamentally pure (p. 144).
But it is surely more than that. One does not choose blindness either, but who would die for the rights of the blind? The inescapable fact is that, despite every angle from which the author approaches national consciousness, his analyses are always missing something. They never account for the real kinship ties and real roots in the national home which dwell in the hearts of the masses. He is always looking to explain them in other terms, always looking for something external to indigeneity, ethnicity, race, and racially-derived culture.
He next tries to separate nationalism from racism, though not because he is trying to rehabilitate or make palatable nationalism but rather to further delegitimize it; he knows that racial consciousness is the key weakness in his argument. The reality of race and the profound ties it creates between people who, though they have never met each other, are literally, demonstrably united into a genetic community, refutes the fundamental substance of his thesis. He writes:
The fact of the matter is that nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history. Niggers are, thanks to the invisible tar-brush, forever niggers; Jews, the seed of Abraham, forever Jews, no matter what passports they carry or what languages they speak or read. (Thus for the Nazi, the Jewish German was always an impostor.) (p. 149).
This is a confused statement. First, only some nationalisms lack a racial or ethnic element, and those which do tend to develop internal ethnic and racial divides which grow with the passage of time. This suggests only that civic national identity is just not as deeply-felt as racial identity, despite the power of print-capitalism or any other technology one cares to name. Second, blacks are forever blacks just as boulders are forever boulders and 2 + 2 will always equal 4. To say that this is “outside history” is to say that that which is eternal is not a part of the human experience and does not affect the course of human events. Instead of blaming racism on nationalism, he blames it on class, claims of divinity, and notions of “breeding” among the aristocracy (p. 149). As evidence he makes a brief mention of Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, but, as is often the case when he makes a particularly weak point, he quickly moves on.
He makes a somewhat related point when he writes next that “[w]here racism developed outside Europe in the nineteenth century, it was always associated with European domination” (p. 150) due to the aristocratic, reactionary nature of official nationalisms being reflected outward into the empires as well as the ability of the imperial “bourgeois and petty bourgeois to play aristocrat off centre court: i.e. anywhere in the empire except at home” (p. 150). Never mind that racial and ethnic solidarity and related tensions are not unique to whites and never have been. And never mind that the first statement is a slight-of-hand trick designed to make whites look bad (one could say with confidence that “where anything developed outside of Europe in the nineteenth century, it was always associated with European domination”). From a purely practical standpoint, there had to be perks for whites to uproot and travel around the world to administer the empire’s holdings. Had they been forced to live exactly as they had back home very few would have gone. But, more importantly, as discussed above, intimacy with the “other” further enhances group bonds so a heightened sense of racial belonging would have been a natural result of being in a non-white land, especially for years at a time. There is simply nothing extraordinary about the racial dynamics of empire. He ends the chapter by noting that “it is remarkable how little that dubious entity known as ‘reverse racism’ manifested itself in the anticolonial movements” (p. 153) and quotes favorably from the deracinated, equalitarian constitution of the failed Republic of Katagalugan (in the Philippines). Civic nationalism — the valorization of bureaucracy, a nationalism stripped of the deepest form of human collective identity — is somehow less problematic for Dr. Anderson than those nationalisms which deal with and seek to give voice to the most profound aspects of the human soul.
Chapter nine, entitled “The Angel of History,” is very brief. In it the author addresses the (then) recent wars between Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Little of is it relevant to nationalism as a concept. He makes a few observations which are worth noting, however: the Bolshevik revolutionary model was the first to be planned and successful and thus became “imaginable in societies still more backward than [Russia]” (pp. 156-57); Revolutionary governments inherit the “wiring of the old state” and this accounts for the tendency of the post-revolutionary leadership to take on similar “lordly” qualities (p. 160). Bolshevism perhaps became imaginable for this reason but without the Comintern and/or Jewish agitation would the world have seen as many Communist revolutionary movements? This seems unlikely. And regarding the “wiring of the old state,” to what extent is this “wiring” simply an outgrowth of natural human hierarchies? And to what extent is its “abuse” a product of the racial temperament of those with access to it?
Chapter ten is called “Census, Map, Museum” and deals with a theme common among Leftist academic critics of the Enlightenment: the charting and classification of things and people by Europeans. Dr. Anderson writes:
Interlinked with one another . . . the census, the map, and the museum illustrate the late colonial state’s style of thinking about its domain. The ‘warp’ of this thinking was a totalizing classificatory grid, which could be applied with endless flexibility to anything under the state’s real or contemplated control: peoples, regions, religions, languages, products, monuments, and so forth. The effect of the grid was always to be able to say of anything that it was this, not that; it belonged here, not there (p. 184).
The hostile interpretation both here and throughout academia of the concept of the census is due solely to the fact that is an attempt to categorize based on race and ethnicity. There is, ultimately, no other reason for any objection. The author finds examples of blurred or changing categories and uses this as a reason to object to the validity of such a project. He is giving primacy to language, but labeling something does not bring it into existence. Nor is the categorization of the natural world something new. It is simply how humans learn. The census is, at its core, merely pattern recognition expressed as symbols on paper. The patterns being recognized may be subject to the biases (or even some hidden agenda) of the observer but the act of categorization is eminently human and natural.
The author suggests that map-makers were attempting to “put space under the same surveillance which the census-makers were trying to impose on persons” (p. 173). He goes so far as to suggest that the use of different colors to represent different empires’ territories on maps influenced anticolonial nationalisms. These colors divided the world into a jigsaw, in which “each piece could be wholly detached from its geographic context” (p. 175). Maps thus disconnected territorial units from their neighbors (p. 175), allowing the poor, simple-minded residents of these territories to start thinking of their lands as worthy of sovereignty. One would have to struggle to come up with an example of a more unfairly Eurocentric observation about the development of anticolonial nationalisms. His attempt to malign whites by criticizing this particular manifestation of their natural intellectual curiosity ends up backfiring and betraying (as elsewhere) his snobbish attitude towards virtually everyone, including non-whites.
Far more interesting is his discussion of museums. It is well-known that numerous scholars and explorers used the expanse of empires to research the history of these regions. Without them, our knowledge of many of the ancient non-white civilizations would be minimal. The author points out that this “archaeological push” had a political angle (p. 180):
‘Progressives’ — colonials as well as natives — were urging major investments in modern schooling. Against them were arrayed conservatives who feared the long-term consequences of such schooling, and preferred the natives to stay native. In this light, archaeological restorations — soon followed by state-sponsored printed editions of traditional literary texts — can be seen as a sort of conservative educational program, which also served as a pretext for resisting the pressure of the progressives (p. 181).
He also notes that “the formal ideological programme of the reconstructions always placed the builders of the monuments and the colonial natives in a certain hierarchy” (p. 181). Sometimes the builders of these monuments were described as being of a different race as those who currently resided in a particular region, which he argues was a way for the colonial state to subtly inform its subjects that they were “incapable of either greatness or self-rule” (p. 181). This may very well have been the reason for having done so, but it was also often likely true, which the author fails to mention.
Finally, he adds that by making available the archaeology of the conquered regions, the state was able “to appear as the guardian of a generalized, but also local, Tradition” (p. 181). Tourism, photographs, books, postage stamps, and archaeological reports all created an aura around the state as protector, as guarantor of an unbroken link between antiquity and the present. Except it didn’t. Why? Because as we have seen, despite the author’s attempts to convince us otherwise, national identity is far deeper than images and texts and policy. The anticolonial nationalists — masses of people — were not swayed by such attempts because they were recognized as hollow, inauthentic, and based on superficial, forced national identities. Their identities could not be constructed or reshaped into a convenient imperial mold precisely because they were not imagined.
Chapter eleven, “Memory and Forgetting,” is the final chapter of the original edition and contains a handful of closing observations. First, Dr. Anderson comments on the distinctiveness of nationalisms in the Americas: the existence of a sense of simultaneity between the colony and the metropole (a shared language, religion, culture, and a sense of belonging) which made American revolutions unique. There was neither a desire on the part of the revolutionaries to conquer the metropole nor a fear of being exterminated for their revolutionary activities due to the fact that the colonists and the Europeans were kinsmen (pp. 191-92). Here the author more or less explicitly recognizes the primary importance of racial identity for the first and only time in the book yet goes no further with it. The reader finally feels as if the author is getting to the core issue and then he simply stops. It is a frustrating moment.
Second, the author comments on the new sense of historical time brought forth by both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The Declaration of Independence, he observes, “makes absolutely no reference to Christopher Columbus, Roanoke, or the Pilgrim Fathers, nor are the grounds put forward to justify independence in any way ‘historical,’ in the sense of highlighting the antiquity of the American people” (p. 193). He compares this to the famous Year One of the French Republic. Both were radical breaks in historical continuity (deliberate in the case of the French; probably not in the case of the Americans). Yet, as we know, common historical time quickly reasserted itself: according to the author, such an undertaking had been rendered impossible by print-capitalism and various other technologies, and in this he is correct. Succeeding nationalisms were unable (and perhaps unwilling?) to capture this sense of rupture and instead began to “imagine themselves as ‘awakening from sleep,’ a trope wholly foreign to the Americas” (p. 195). Nationalism began to be portrayed as a revitalization, as an end to dormancy.
Third, the author discusses what to him seems to be the bizarre phenomenon of national fraternity existing side-by-side with what he views as fratricide. Among the examples he mentions is William the Conqueror, considered a Founding Father of England, despite the fact that he spoke no English (which did not even exist at the time) and actually conquered the English — “which would turn the old Norman predator into a more successful precursor of Napoléon and Hitler” (p. 201). Admittedly, the example of William the Conqueror raises some valid questions to which there are no easy answers, but it must be remembered that the author’s goal is to delegitimize the concept of nationalism. His objection to the whitewashing of certain historical facts in order to bolster national mythologies and in-group sentiment is not based in the prioritization of fact but in the deconstruction of nations. Sometimes, perhaps, little white historical lies — especially those in the remote past — do more good than harm, perhaps even hint at truths higher than mere fact. Or perhaps it is high time that English schoolchildren be taught again about conquest by foreigners, and perhaps no point in history is too early to start.
Imagined Communities should be read. It is a textbook example of clever manipulation and the intellectual acrobatics in which academics will engage so that they can avoid questions of race and the science of identity. It is also an example of the thinly veiled disdain in which they hold the general population, white and non-white alike. But beyond that, if, as postmodernists are always urging us to do, we read this book against the grain, we find that it offers a case only for the existence of both imagined and “unimagined” communities, i.e. real, primordial, and vital communities (more often than not racially or ethnically homogeneous) — the latter of which have an exponentially greater hold on the hearts and minds of human beings than the former.
However, even if we were to grant Dr. Anderson every single point, one could simply say “so what?” What if all nations are creations of print-capitalism and secularism? Are political desires invalid because they cannot be traced to antiquity? On the one hand we have a world in which someone can be anything he claims to be (trans-whatever or an equal citizen of anywhere he plants his feet) and receive full support from academics and various other Judaized elites; on the other hand, these same people then demand a centuries-long paper trail, complete with citations and notarized, when any nationalist political community asserts its own right to exist. Whenever a community decides to embrace a homogeneous identity and work in concert towards a political goal based around that identity, suddenly objective reality becomes supremely important to their worldview. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (imagined community or not).
 Though first published in 1983, it took some time to gain prominence. In a very interesting and enlightening added final chapter in this revised edition, the author charts the book’s success, including George Soros-subsidized translations beginning in the mid-1990s for the then newly opened Eastern European markets (pp. 219–20).
Many of the Emperors in Europe were there precisely to suppress nationalist sentiment from the get go.
The Hapsburgs funded by Jacob Fugger for example.
The Ottoman sultan from Constantinople suppressed various peoples national aspirations in the Balkans, and sold off their children to slavers converting them into Janissaries and concubines.
Never heard of Jakob Fugger before — very interesting character. A dominant banker in Germany who wasn’t Jewish!
Mike Jones puts the Fuggers into context in his fine work Barren Metal, a fascinating history of economics.
Anyone here familiar with the book Blood and Belonging written by Michael Ignatieff , President and Rector of the Central European University (founded by George Soros)? By the way, Ignatieff is the fellow who last year got his shorts in a twist over “an increasingly autocratic Hungary”. The purpose of that book is to promote civic nationalism as good and the other kind as bad. The reader is regaled with accounts of how inherently bloody and violent ethnic nationalism is by describing the actions of 6 ethnic groups, of which, yes, 5 are European The other is the Kurds.
From Thoresen’s review it sounds as if Benedict Anderson’s book would be less simple-minded than Ignatieff’s even though the two authors are fellow travellers.
Awesome. I was waiting for someone on counter-currents t0 make a rebuttal of Anderson’s work. Anderson is a pillar to all “postmodern” and new-left thought. It’s a shame some people still believe in the end of history, and feel nothing can criticizes the so-called cutting edge philosophies of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, or Zizek. If only the older generation woke up from their professional jobs and saw the light on the internet.
With narrow vision, Benedict Anderson ignores the ancient city-state. Athenians saw themselves as pure Ionians and, during the Peloponnesian War, believed it held supremacy and authority over all Ionian colonies, so much so that, in the case of Amphipolis where Athenians were the minority of the city, the Athenians doubted that they could persuade/influence the city not to defect to the Spartan general Brasidas. The Spartans held themselves as distinct well under the ethnonym of Dorian.
Thank you for this well-analyzed and comprehensive review. I’ve been aware of this book for decades, but no longer feel any need to read it. I disagree with the reviewer only about the value of reading something like this (for the non-specialist reader; scholars focusing on the history of theories of nationalism will of course have to read it, if only to know what the fuss was about). Life is short; reading time, even for professional academics, is limited; one should read that which brings one closer to truth (which can include the truths that literature expresses or explores). Should I read Martin Bernal’s Afrocentric Black Athena books, dismissed by real classicists like Oswyn Murray? What about Gould’s deliberately misleading The Mismeasure of Man? I think not.
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